ByJustin Gammill

May 1, 2014

HelltownBlack birds circle high overhead as you walk down abandoned streets. To your left something scuttles into the shadows eliciting a panicked gasp from your mouth as your fight or flight response pegs to the flight side of the gauge. The shell of a once lively town looms before you, now derelict and broken. You step across a 2 foot wide jagged crack in the asphalt that zig-zags its way down what used to be the main thoroughfare. Smoke hangs heavy in the air and clings to every surface as you wander deeper into this hell that used to be Main Street in a small middle American town…

No, this is not the opening scene from the latest season of The Walking Dead. It’s not the description on the back of a Silent Hill novella. It’s right now in Centralia, Pennsylvania, or as the few residents that remain call it; Helltown, USA …

Back in 1962 Centralia was your average bustling mining town. With a population of approximately 1,400, it was a tight-knit community. In an effort to get ready for the upcoming Memorial Day celebration, the city council asked five volunteer firefighters to burn the trash in the city landfill. Little did they know that the “landfill” was an old open pit mine and when they set fire to the trash they ignited a vein of anthracite coal. That vein lead to the sprawling network of mine shafts that ran under the town and the surrounding hillside. A fire intended to clean the town would eventually kill it.

The true expanse of the underground fire was not realized until 1979 when a gas station owner found his underground fuel tanks to be at 172 degrees. In 1981, a young boy was swallowed by a sinkhole that opened, quite literally, right under his feet. The sinkhole was belching toxic levels of carbon monoxide. After all of the dangers to the town, the government began a 42 million dollar relocation program in 1981. In 1992, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania claimed all of the properties in the borough under eminent domain. The final death stroke came when Centralia’s ZIP code was revoked by the Postal Service in 2002. By 2010, there were only 10 residents remaining in what was once known as Centralia.

The remaining holdouts in Centralia have been fighting legal battles since 1992 to keep their homes despite the eminent domain rulings and on October 31, 2013, eight remaining residents settled their lawsuits. As part of their settlement they received a cash payout of $349,500 and permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live. The rulings finally ended the 20-year legal battle, bringing a little solace to the residents who’ve watched their town burn and die for 50 years.

As the fire continues to burn, it also continues to move. Experts predict that there is enough anthracite coal in the region to keep the fire burning for a thousand years. So the legacy of a once tight-knit coal community is now a template for ghost towns in stories like Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways. The blame for the incident at Centralia could probably fall on many different shoulders but after 50 years, it’s not important whose fault it is anymore. It’s a tragedy from any angle.

By Justin Gammill

He is "stealthy like a ninja at midnight, yet brazen like a champion Mexican fighting chicken". Justin Gammill approaches his topics in a manner that provokes thought, laughter, and the occasional “did he just say that?”. Chances are, yes, he most certainly did just say that. So, buckle up … you never know where the train of thought is going.